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X-raying life’s microscopic machinery

New laser technique promises to make the subcellular visible

By
5:36pm, February 2, 2011

An X-ray laser so bright and fast that it puts a paparazzi zoom lens to shame has allowed researchers to snap pictures of celebrity molecules that typically avoid scientists’ prying eyes. The method should prove widely useful for investigating the structure and activity of drugs, molecules for fuels and other materials.

Scientists have now used the new technique, 10 years in the making, to image an important photosynthesis protein and a virus. And the method should eventually allow researchers to make movies of molecules interacting with each other. As the infrastructure of the cellular world, proteins are of particular interest; witnessing them in action could shed light on processes from brain-cell activity to photosynthesis.

“This will be extremely interesting in just about all biological systems,” says physicist Henry Chapman of the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg. Chapman is a member of the two international teams who report t

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